Ministry of Magic, Magical London
Hermione stuck her lathered hands under the sink. The sleeve of her robes rode up, and she caught a glimpse of the jagged letters OOD from her MUDBLOOD scar. She quickly diverted her attention to her reflection in the mirror and shut off the faucet. Oh, gods, she needed a haircut.
The thought made her pause. Where had that thought come from? She was perfectly happy with the length of her hair. She fingered the ends of it, contemplating the dream she had the night previously. She dreamt her hair had been to her shoulders and not down her back. A bit more tame, even. Her dream also consisted of her running around a graveyard, digging up a casket, and setting fire to the remains. The moment her lighter hit the bones, she had woken all sweaty and frightened and bursting of adrenaline like she could run for miles.
Absurd! Like she could run such a distance now. She wasn't eighteen anymore.
"Strange, strange dreams," she told her reflection, brow furrowing. She dried her hands on the provided stack of towels next to the sinks of the loo and then shuffled out into the hallway towards the elevator. When the door slid open, she stilled when seeing Draco Malfoy standing in the middle of the lift. His eyes met hers, and they regarded each other silently before she summoned up the courage to join him. When her foot breached the threshold, she stepped back and said while waving her fingers, "I'll just get the next one."
He arched a brow, smirking in amusement and stepping to the side. "There's plenty of room for us. As for our history…well…even the ministry groans from the pressure."
She sighed and joined him in the lift, not saying a word. The box went down, up, and side-to-side. Close to her floor, Malfoy piped up hesitantly, "I had a dream of you last night."
Hermione's stared at him in aghast. "Excuse me?"
"Not like that," he clipped, rolling his eyes at her like she was the mad one. "You were just in it, is all."
She scrunched up her face, shaking her head, already writing this conversation off and putting it behind her. "All right."
"Your hair was shorter," he said and the lift stopped and opened. He bowed his head at her. "Good day, Mrs. Weasley."
She did not return the lukewarm offering he gave but eyed him warily. When she reached The Department of Magical Creatures, she arrived to her office and sat down at her desk, counting the stacks of files in front of her. She grabbed a random one and opened it, skimming the content and wondering how the file got so far up the ladder and to her office? It was trivial drabble. Of course the vampires would not be granted territory. They needed to be beheaded.
Hermione grabbed a quill and was about to scratch her thoughts into the parchment when she stopped herself. She pinched her nose and wondered what was going on with her. Vampires being beheaded. No, she'd never sanction such a barbaric act. They were protected creatures up to an extent. She fought for their rights, having taken the case to the Wizengamot some years ago and won.
She set down the quill and leaned back in her chair. Something was off, but she couldn't place a finger on it. Perhaps she was falling ill, or her cycle was coming early, and she was simply reacting testily to her hormones.
Snatching another file, she dove into another case and read about the proposition of breeding the United Kingdom's unicorns with those from Russia. Both populations were near depletion, and Russia didn't want to inbreed in fear of producing "хромой лошади" or in other words, lame horses.
Shit, was this really up to her?
Hermione chastised herself on her internal, yet uncomely language. And, yes, it was up to her. She was Head of the Department, and she thought back to when she had the meeting with Mr. Alexsie Vtruskov a month prior about this situation. The majority of his unicorns were ebony in hue, all of their coats exquisite. He appeared rather undisturbed by the possibility of producing grey horses or another color entirely. She had liked Mr. Vtruskov. After she informed him of the possible outcome of cross-breeding black and white unicorns, he'd said, "It's their power that matters, Mrs. Weasley. Not their coats."
Hermione signed the forms and went on to the next file, burning through them until close to noon when she came to one about werewolves. Again, hostility rose up inside her, making her angrier than before. Werewolves couldn't be controlled. They were a danger to all those around them and needed to be, not only detained, but neutralized.
"Hermione," said a voice at the entrance of her office. She looked up and saw Ginny holding two baby carriers, each one in the strong holds of her arms. Her friend lifted one and continued, "I brought him by. I thought we could do lunch."
Hermione nodded. "Or course." She set down her quill, and Ginny handed her a carrier. Hermione lifted her son onto her desk and saw him cozy and sleeping.
I don't have a son, she thought even though she could recall perfectly of giving birth to her precious Hugo over a year ago.
"You all right?" asked Ginny.
Hermione did her best to shirk her new, incredibly odd and horrid thinking patterns. She looked at her friend and gave a forced smile. "Mmhmm. Where's Rose?"
"Dropped her off with Ron. She wanted to have a Daddy-Daughter lunch with him. Too cute."
At the café down in the atrium of the ministry, Hermione studied the sleeping child at her feet and wondered if she was having some sort of belated Post-Partum Depression. He was precious, indeed, all plump limbs, pink cheeks, and pacifier. Yet, in that moment, she felt no attachment whatsoever.
Ginny returned to the table with their lunch order. She set down Hermione's tray and said, "Your rabbit food."
Hermione stared down at the assortment of fruits and vegetables on the bed of baby spinach leaves. On top of all that was a sparse sprinkling of mozzarella cheese.
"Where's the rest of it?" she asked.
"I know, right?" Ginny chortled and rocked Lily by gently pushing the bottom of the baby carrier with her foot. She stabbed her fork into the sizeable, grilled chicken breast on her plate. "I'll hand it to you, though. I didn't actually think you'd go this long without meat. You look good, though. The baby weight's off, true that."
"Thanks," Hermione muttered and poked at a cherry tomato with her fork. She glanced at the small cup of lemon juice off to the side and wished for burgers and beer. A lot of beer. Or better yet, some whiskey.
Damn it, she couldn't do that. She was breastfeeding.
And it was noon.
And she didn't drink. Ever. Hadn't since one year anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. She had gotten well and truly thrashed and said never again.
"Hey," Ginny said softly, placing a comforting hand on Hermione's arm. "Something's going on, isn't it? With you?"
"Uh…" Hermione chuckled and said, "Have you ever just woke up one day and felt like…it wasn't real. Your life, I mean."
"I pinch myself every day, Hermione. I've a good life, a good husband, beautiful children who want for nothing."
"That's not what I meant," she said, eyes settling on Draco Malfoy who stood in the coffee line at the café. He'd already been staring at her, intensely, like he was trying to figure her out or some rot. "I don't know what I meant, I guess. Never mind."
"Is everything good between you and Ron?" Ginny sighed and leaned towards her, dropping her voice. "I know this sounds bad, but take it as a grain of salt. Ron blabbed to Harry and Harry blabbed to me." Hermione's friend winced. "You and Ron haven't made love since Valentine's Day. That's a long time."
"I love him," Hermione lied. "Everything's fine." She looked at her lap, shrugging. "We're both so tired from work and the kids."
Hermione did love her husband once. In fact, that morning when she woke up, turned over and saw her husband's face; she'd loved him then. Somewhere between waking up and coming to work, she lost it. Not just for him, but for everything she cared about. Ginny whom she loved like a sister and would've gladly take an Avada for her, meant very little to her now. It was like seeing an old friend from childhood after many years apart. Hermione cared for her...to some degree.
They finished their lunches and before bidding farewell to Ginny, Hermione put her baby on the table and stared at him for a good, long while. She wanted to force herself back to loving him like a mother and not being endeared like a stranger. Her vision short-circuited, and she found herself in the back of a large Muggle Vehicle and staring at a younger infant, this one with brown wisps of hair poking out of his cap rather than ginger.
Forty-Eight Hours Before…
It's not that Hermione disliked Bethany Nott. The woman wasn't loathsome. It's just sometimes she'd say things like, "So do you have a tattoo like this lot?"
Strapped tightly and uncomfortably in the far back of the van between Anna and Oliver. From her car-seat, Anna was doing a pretty damned good job in grabbing onto Hermione's braid and tugging enthusiastically. It didn't hurt, but Hermione was annoyed. To make matters worse, little Anna was adorable and would erupt into a fountain of Disney songs. The little girl couldn't sing a damned note but, bloody hell, she knew every single lyric.
As for Oliver, he slept soundly in his car seat, the six-week old baby all comfy and completely uncaring of all the commotion around him.
Hermione blinked at Bethany in the front passenger seat before furrowing her brow. She opened her mouth and was about to ask the woman to explain, but Malfoy cut in and said, "No, she doesn't."
"Oh. Were you too afraid to get one with the boys? I'm terrified of needles, myself. Only have one tattoo. Got it at uni. My first year and was completely pissed. Don't remember a thing."
In the middle of Bethany's babble, Hermione realized what the woman was talking about and then replied, "The boys and I weren't that close growing up. I actually wasn't aware they got tattoos until much later."
"I want a tattoo just like Daddy's and Uncle Drake's," Bethany chirped, stopping mid-song to alert everyone. "Riiiiight here." She pointed to her belly and giggled.
"Surely you'd want something prettier than that hideous thing," Hermione said lightly, receiving two grateful looks from the two men in the car.
"Chip from Beauty and the Beast." The girl beamed and Hermione cracked a smile, imagining the tot with a chipped teacup on her stomach. What an excellent conversation starter that would be when the wee one grew up and started dating. "He's my favorite. Or Pascal from Tangled."
"They were such a boys' club." Bethany cast a dewy look at Nott in the driver's seat. "When Theo and I were dating, we did loads of group dates with Blaine and Drake. It's like they couldn't do anything without each other. It was kind of annoying at first but looking back, it's—I don't know—kind of cute. And Drake's mum fussed over all of them. She didn't think I was good enough for Theo. Called me a tart the first time she met me. Remember that, Drake?"
"You do recall what you were wearing, yes?" Malfoy said, smirking and Bethany huffed.
"It's wasn't that bad."
Drake and Bethany started to playfully bicker, and Hermione tuned them out, eyes drifting to the greenery outside. The day was warm and nice, only few puffy clouds in the sky. The air was a bit thick from humidity but bearable. It was likely they'd get rained on one of the nights, but they packed thoroughly, Bethany brightly mentioning before in a terrible American accent that this wasn't their first rodeo.
Anna increasingly grew restless in her seat and began to fiddle with the straps of her bindings and started kicking her legs. When that bored her, she stretched her legs and kicked the back of Draco's seat. Her face began to pink as did her eyes, and she rubbed them and then her nose.
And then she sneezed.
The radio kicked on, blaring white noise at an unbearable volume, and Bethany yelped and hurriedly shut it off. She chuckled nervously and said, "That was weird, wasn't it? And look. Ollie's still sleeping." She cleared her throat and dug her through her purse. "Anna, sweetie, do you need your allergy medicine?"
"Yes, Mummy," she said quietly, tears budding in her large brown eyes.
"Hey, love," Bethany said to Nott. "Why don't we pull over in a bit and stretch our legs?"
Hermione stared at the back of Malfoy's head, willing him to turn around and look at her. When Theodore stopped at a market, she scrambled out of the van and angrily stalked inside, finding the candy section and glaring at a Mars bar. She grabbed it and read the nutritional content on the back. In her peripheral vision, she saw Malfoy come up behind her trying to act casual.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Hermione shoved the candy bar back on the shelf. "It's only going to get worse."
"What would you have me do? It's Theo's decision."
Hermione folded her arms and cocked her hip to the side. "It's scaring Anna and Bethany. From the way all of you acted, this isn't new. What do you expect? That it's going to go away?"
"Maybe not all the way, but yes. Granger, the most any of us can do is unlock doors. It will get to a point Anna won't be able to do much. She's just at that age. We all went through it."
"It's going to be different. She won't get a wand to channel all that energy through. She won't have to become dependent on it, and her magic won't be limited. It's won't disappear. Her father is going to have to teach her to control it. It's going to happen to Oliver, too."
"If it bothers you so much, take it up with Theo."
Hermione rolled her eyes. The man barely tolerated her and never addressed her directly. He hadn't forgotten how she nearly broke his arm and carved out his eye with a butter knife.
She took a step towards Malfoy, dropping her voice even further. "Need I remind you of what I do and the people I know. Not all hunters are as tolerant as me."
"Tolerant?" he sputtered.
"Listen! There are those out there that would see someone like us, children like Anna as monsters. If she can't blend in, then she's going to draw attention to herself and the wrong kind of people are going to start sniffing."
"She's just a child. Who would do anything-"
"Yes, Malfoy. What kind of people hurt children because of something they have no control over?" It was a low blow, but he needed to hear it. Despite his status as a man of the law and a former Death Eater, he also needed a reminder of how cruel and sick people could be. In Hermione's time as a hunter, she came to understand the viciousness of the supernatural, but she would never understand the blood-thirstiness of people. She was reminded of the few months she was in jail awaiting her trial. Her cellmate had murdered her own toddler because she didn't want to take care of him any longer.
A pregnant silence floated between them, and Hermione scuffed the toe of her shoe, sighing. "I'm not going to apologize for bringing it up. We've both done some things we've regretted, I'm sure, but I'm serious about Anna."
Malfoy massaged his face and then scalp, his features pinched. "Even if I were to bother Theo about this, he might not be able to help her. How can he teach her to control something he no longer has himself?"
"Snape might be a better candidate."
Hermione shook her head. "Like I said, I can't do much anymore. There was a short time I had access to my full magic and was able to control it…more or less, but I also had five years of knowledge to back me up. Snape has more experience. So do you and Nott, actually."
"Is this the flirting aisle," Bethany quipped, popping into view. Her smile faltered when seeing their stony expressions. "I guess not. Is everything all right?"
"No." Hermione grabbed the Mars bar she'd been looking at and a package of Turkish Delight. "I just can't decide."
"With that perky bum, you can afford to eat both." Bethany laughed and gave her a wink. "Be sure to share with Drake. I'm sure you know how he gets when everyone's eating sweets besides him. Two words. Temper tantrum."
Hermione chuckled and shoved the Mars bar towards Malfoy's chest. "Ah, yes. I remember how jealous you'd get when we were kids." She shot a glance at Bethany. "Over the silliest things, mind you. Like test scores."
"Oh, that's right. Drake said you were the best in the class."
"I was?" Hermione stared questioningly at Malfoy. Honestly, she had no idea how she fared on her OWLs after falling through the veil. Before she died, she'd been butting heads with that one boy from Ravenclaw. She couldn't recall his name.
Malfoy nodded, and she said, "I was, I guess."
"Were you valedictorian?"
"Drake must've not mentioned it, but I didn't graduate with the lot of them. I transferred elsewhere. I moved out of the area."
Moments later, they all piled back into the van, and Malfoy moved the car seats of Anna and Oliver, so he could sit next to her in the back. After a few minutes of being on the road, he said in a very low voice, "There'd been a memorial assembly at school at the very end of the term. Dumbledore announced that you scored the highest on the OWLs out of all the fifth year students."
Hermione stared at her lap and said, "I slaved a way at the library for a nonexistent future. What a bloody waste, right?"
An hour later, they pulled up to their rented camp site and filtered out of the fan, tossing their supplies onto the ground. They got to work by putting up the tents and digging trenches around them. It was then when Hermione realized that they were short one adult-sized tent. She frowned and peered into the back of the van, saying to Malfoy, "Did you forget your tent?"
"No," he said gruffly, grimacing at the dirt on his hands.
"We packed four tents," Nott said and then frowned at his smirking wife. "Right?"
"The fourth took up too much space, so I left yours out, Drake. There's plenty of room for you to share with Jean."
"Beth," Nott whined. "I told you to stop meddling. They don't see each other that way."
Hermione sent a look towards Malfoy. He hadn't told Nott he was perving on her something fierce these past few weeks? Huh.
"Then you're blind," Bethany said sweetly. "I'm sorry, you two, but we really did need the extra space for the second cooler box. If it's really so uncomfortable, Jean and I, plus the kids can share and you boys can share."
That sounded just as bad.
"We'll be all right, won't we?" Malfoy said, pleased.
"We're both adults," she quipped, not that it mattered. She'd be staying up most of the night anyway. She never did fare well in the wilderness. Plus, she brought a bag filled with books. Those Supernatural books. So far she was halfway through the first section. Usually, she would've been well on her way to the third section, but each book was a terrible read. They were barely English, and she struggled with imagining each setting. What she was able to grasp were the dialogue, the characters, and their feelings.
The characters, she mused. They were bloody real people, and she felt like she was invading Sam and Dean's privacy by reading the series. A few weeks ago, she had left a message on Sam's voicemail concerning the books, but he never returned the call. Truthfully, it was all a bit unnerving. Did the Winchesters know there was a five section series about them? It'd be very, very strange if they didn't.
The Sam she read about was different than the man she knew presently and only marginally different than the one she met four years ago. He was gentler and less selfish. Or perhaps he was just as selfish but in a more appropriate manner.
Hermione had always known the Winchesters didn't have the healthiest relationship and really only looked out for one another, all the rest being collateral damage. Reading the books made her realize how off the mark she was. Their relationship wasn't just unhealthy. It was goddamned catastrophic, and Hermione was grateful she never loved anything or anyone that much. She had loved her parents and would've died for them, but she wouldn't have sold her soul to bring them back to life.
Once her and Draco's tent was set up, she unloaded her bags inside and pulled out Supernatural: Faith. Staring at the cover for a few moments, she wondered what would've happened if Sam hadn't located that faith healer and Dean died. She also wondered how they managed to have a case fall directly into their laps. It disturbed her, actually, and bothered her to think of things such as fate and destiny controlling people's lives-putting people where they needed to be. Only recently, she accepted that there was a God because there were angels. Even when she faced her first demon and was given secondhand proof of hell and the devil, she'd turned up her nose and refused to accept anything beyond a ruddy afterlife for bad people and blissful nothingness for good. Concepts such as fate fit into the same category, yet here she was in a strange world alongside people from home she never imagined connecting with.
Hermione put the book beside her pillow and sleeping bag and crawled out of the tent and sat on one of the logs surrounding the fireplace whilst Bethany started a fire and Malfoy lugged over one of the cooler boxes. Twenty minutes later, they were gathered around the flames with sandwiches and crisps and Anna kept begging her parents and Malfoy for a scary story.
"You've heard them all, love," Bethany cooed, juggling a cooing Oliver in her arms. "Besides, you get so scared, and you keep Daddy and me up all night."
"I won't get scared this time. I promise."
Twigs snapped in the distance, and Hermione whipped her head around and narrowed her eyes on a section of trees behind her. Five hex bags she deposited in the earth surrounding the campsite, but there were other beasts that were immune to such magic. The moon was full, but she checked and made sure there weren't any gruesome heart-extractions in the area or any other kind of supernatural activity.
Hermione closed her eyes for a few moments and let her other senses be her guide. She was basically magic-less like the lot of them, but like before, she retaught herself how to listen to the signs of supernatural activity. Thankfully, she could not sense anything negative, so she shirked off her worry and bit into her sandwich, enjoying the crunch of her crisps she put in it. Anna giggled next to her and staggered a few crisps on her own sandwich before taking a bite.
"Mm," Bethany hummed and set her sandwich aside. "It needs pickles." She popped the lid of the cooler box went digging for the desired additive. Hermione eyed the woman's crunchy peanut butter, banana, strawberry jam, chocolate sauce sandwich in apprehension.
"Mum loves pickles," chirped Anna, mouth full.
"Want any, Hermione?" Bethany asked, popping the lid off the jar.
"I'm good, thanks." Hermione saluted her ham, avocado, spinach, and pepper jack in response. She wasn't a huge fan of pickles but reflecting on many of her meals from late January to the beginning of April, she'd eaten her fair share.
She swallowed and cast her focus on her stomach, upset at herself for thinking about something she so desperately wanted to put behind her. It didn't help when thinking about her miscarriage made her think of Sam and how he still hadn't even bothered contacting her. Did he even know or care she wasn't in the States? There was the message she sent him back in December, but what if he deleted it just because he was an arsehole?
She still wore the charms he gave her around her wrist. They didn't do anything, but one did give her a burn-y rash for some reason which disappeared after a while and never happened again.
Hermione brushed the tip of her pinky against the pendants, debating whether or not to remove them and place them in her trunk back in her flat. Taking them off could be a symbol. Putting them away could mean putting Sam behind her for good and moving forward. Not necessarily moving on which implied her warming up to another bloke, but simply shoving Sam into his corner of her mind where she kept those such as Ronald Weasely, Viktor Krum, Junior, and Saad. If she were bitter and dramatic, she'd label the metaphorical area Men Who Once Mattered.
Again, Hermione fiddled with the pendants with her pinky but stopped when feeling Malfoy's stare. She paid him no mind and returned to her sandwich, then satiating her thirst with some water. For dessert, they toasted some marshmallows and stuck them inside Oreos, something she had never even thought about doing and decided it a tragedy that she had to die and come back to life before eating one.
With their bellies full and the night quiet, save for their tipsy neighbors in the next clearing, they all retired to their tents. Hermione, not wanting things to be awkward, offered she and Draco each hang outside the tent while the other changed in their night clothes. He agreed, and she allowed him to go first. A few minutes later, they were both in their pajamas and snug in their sleeping bags on the opposites of the tent.
Hermione situated herself comfortably inside her sleeping bag and clicked on the flashlight, so it would shine on her book. A page later, Malfoy said, "You're not going to sleep?"
"I don't sleep well in a place that doesn't have walls, plumbing, or people I trust." She flipped the page of her book, pursing her lips in disapproval at Mrs. LeGrange's manipulating of a reaper.
"This helps," he said and she lowered her book and saw him take a flask out of his bag. "Care for some?"
"I'm fine not sleeping. I need to catch up on some reading, anyway."
"Oh, yes. The material you've chosen is stimulating to say the least," he said mockingly. "You had better taste when we were kids."
"Unless you're harboring a secret of your own, Malfoy, you've no idea what I'm reading."
"I saw the cover. I know all there is to know."
Hermione glanced at the cover despite being well-acquainted with the absurd image of two fit men in jeans, one of them shirtless and the other wearing an unzipped hoodie that displayed bits of his rippled, washboard torso. The latter was leaning against an old, but cherry muscle car while the other stood tall with his long Fabio hair blowing in the wind.
"These men are brothers," Hermione said, "and they wear more clothing than this. The cover was made this way to get randy teenaged girls to purchase it. I'm not sure why that is. The content is hardly adolescent appropriate and targeted more towards adult males like yourself."
"Then why are you reading it?"
"Believe it or not, this is for research. I'm fairly certain the author is privy to the supernatural…among other things. I'm learning from this book and the entire series it's a part of. For example, I just barely discovered one could force a reaper to do his or her bidding, meaning to kill whoever, wherever, whenever. Although, I suspect the consequences to be severe if not fatal."
"A reaper," Malfoy said heavily.
"They're quite real, and it's best not to avoid them when dead. They merely want to keep the balance of life and the restless spirits down to a few."
"Naturally," he murmured. "May I ask you a question?"
"You just did."
"Don't be cute. I only want to know about the charms on your wrist. You said it's impossible for our kind to become possessed by a demon or a vengeful spirit. Why do you wear protective sigils if it doesn't matter?"
"Because, Malfoy, they were gifts."
"From that Valdini Jr. bloke, I take it. You two were chummy."
Hermione glared at him, putting the light of her flashlight on her face, so he'd know how irritated she was with him at the apparent jealousy in his tone. She wished at the very least Malfoy wouldn't be so obvious in his growing affection for her. "You've no idea the relationship I had with Junior. The charms were not from him. They came from a friend I had in the States."
"Is he…dead?" said Malfoy, carefully.
"Depends who you ask." She lowered her flashlight back to her book and then clicked off the light a few seconds later and shifted in her sleeping bag. "You know, I think I will go to sleep."
Hours went by before she actually fell asleep. When she awoke to Oliver screeching, Anna's giggling, and to the smell of bacon; one of her nostrils was stuffed and her throat was scratchy. She drank from her bottle of water, and it helped a little. Malfoy was still asleep, snoring softly so she wiggled into her day clothes in the confines of her sleeping bag instead of going to find a bush to hide behind. She then redid her braid and climbed out of the tent, noticing Bethany and Anna at the grill.
Because the three of them were the first to wake up and get ready for the day, they got first dibs on the bacon, eggs, and pancakes. They situated themselves around the fireless pit, and Hermione politely listened to Bethany's spiel on being a morning person, having a hearty appetite, and thinking she'd never marry but did so just shy of twenty-one.
"Theo was a tutor at the time, and I was just about to graduate. Early, mind you. Theo and I met in the line of Panera. He had a cute bum, so I asked him on a date. Didn't think it'd go anywhere since it was just for coffee on the campus café. In fact, we didn't even drink coffee. He had iced tea, and I had juice. We barely talked but just sat awkwardly, staring out the window. He told me he was going to be a professor starting in the fall, and I was doing an internship in the States for the summer and fall. That was that, and I didn't see him again. I went to Georgia. Do you know Georgia? Lovely place. Fell in love with the food. Returned to Westminster in January as a tutor and ran into Theo again. Actually got coffee, became friends, and so on and so forth."
"Georgia is nice," Hermione said blandly.
"Drake mentiond you were a regular renaissance woman, travelling around and all that. Bet you've seen all kinds of things. What were your favorite things about the States? As much I loved the food," Bethany winked and lowered her voice, "I do miss the men. Don't tell Theo."
Anna giggled and snuggled close to her mum's side, pleased to be sharing a secret with her.
"The men," Hermione half lied.
By the time they finished breakfast, Nott and Malfoy emerged from the tents and piled some breakfast onto their disposable plates while Hermione and Bethany readied the packs for their hike to the boys' favorite place to do archery. When they were all prepared to take off into the forest, Hermione slipped on her pack and winced at the weight and questioned herself for the umpteenth time as to why she decided to join Malfoy and his merry band of nature-lovers. Oh, all right. Malfoy and Nott didn't like this anymore than she did but were better sports about it.
The hike wouldn't have been near as bad if she didn't have the pack on her back. Hermione fared well enough, though. She wasn't out of shape by any means, but running had always been her go-to method of exercise. Hiking on an incline for seven bloody miles was another thing entirely, but she was not going to be the one to insist they stop and take sporadic rests throughout the trek. That job was for Anna and Anna alone. Believe it or not, the child only demanded they stop twice and those were for bathroom breaks.
And, bloody hell, Bethany was incredibly fit. A baby on her front and a pack on her back, she conquered the journey like a very modern, very British, very white Sacagawea.
They arrived to their destination in the early afternoon, and Bethany made quick work of unravelling her pack and pulling out three wrapped sandwiches—one for her daughter and two for herself.
"Peanut butter, peanut butter. Must have it now," Bethany muttered underneath her breath, the straw connected to her pack of water wedged between her teeth.
Hermione rested against the thick trunk of a tree and nibbled at her own peanut butter and raspberry preserve sandwich. She pulled out her book and wished she could be done with it already, but she still had a hundred or so pages left.
"How's your aim, Jean?" asked Bethany after her two sandwiches. She slung a quiver over her shoulder, winding the string tight on her bow. She tested the give with a flick of the finger and smiled.
"I haven't shot an arrow in well over a decade," Hermione admitted. "When I was in the States, I took up target practice. Shooting, that is. Guns."
"Wicked." Bethany nudged her head at Malfoy and Theo who were trying to figure out their bows. "Let's show these boys how it's done. They only do this once a year, so they forget what to do every time."
Hermione withheld her sigh and shoved her book back inside her pack to go and help Malfoy with his bow. He frowned bemusedly at her when she held out her hands in offering. "Just tell me what to do," he said, refusing to relinquish the bow. She instructed him by hand gestures until his bow was assembled and the string was to his liking. She watched as he pulled an arrow from his quiver and took aim at the tree trunk where he carved a target. The bow hit a few centimeters away from the center. Malfoy then offered her the bow and an arrow, a smirk daring her to do better than him.
"Wipe that look off your face," she hissed, yanking the bow and arrow away out of his hands. She readied them and rolled her eyes when Malfoy got flush behind her steady her stance and aim, one hand on her shoulder and the other on her opposite arm.
"You know, Granger," he started, whispering so close to her ear that his bottom lip brushed the lobe, "I think you're only pretending to dislike me."
Her arrow hit the target dead center, and she relaxed and turned to face him. "It's not that I dislike you, Malfoy. It's that-"
"You've someone else in mind," he finished, his nose wrinkling.
Hermione blinked. "Where did that come from?"
"It's only plain you're all hung up on some other bloke."
"Oh, Malfoy, you are so, so out of touch with reality, it's more remarkable than sad."
"Bad breakup then."
"There isn't anyone."
"No?" He fingers encircled her charm-covered wrist.
"No one you have to have a pissing contest with, that's for sure."
Malfoy invaded her bubble and peered down at her through hooded eyes. "Because I'm in the lead."
"Because you're the only one playing." She reached around him and retrieved another arrow and shot it at the target, the second scraping the top curvature of the first and embedding in the center. Malfoy whistled, impressed and took the bow from her, intentionally brushing his fingers against hers. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and aligned it expertly against the string.
"Not that I can't hold my own in a competition, I do like being the only player. It certainly increases the odds, doesn't it?" He let the arrow fly, and the tip drove into the trunk of a neighboring tree. Hermione laughed, triumph and a little bit of arrogance in her mirth.
"Let me guess. You meant to do that."
Malfoy's features morphed into that familiar pinched sneer adulthood and a new world failed to strip from him. His grip tightened on the bow. "Tell you what, Granger. I shoot again and hit the target, I get a kiss."
"Mmm." Hermione glanced at the tree he didn't mean to hit and the first arrow he shot. She folded her arms and cocked her hips. "I'm not in the mood for games, Malfoy, but I'll indulge you just to see you miss again."
"I won't," he said, stretching the string and arrow back, "because if you give a man a good incentive to win," he let go and the arrow wedged in between Hermione's two arrows, "he may surprise you."
Closing her eyes, Hermione hung her head and licked her teeth. Damn!
Malfoy dropped the bow to the earth and looped an arm around her waist, drawing her close to him. Their fronts were pressed against each other, and Hermione leaned back to look up at him. "I didn't brush this morning," she said.
"I saw you do it at the pump," he said, chuckling. "You had your adorable little zipper pack and floss. I admire a girl with good dental hygiene."
"Oh, get it over with before I decide to punch you just because I feel like it."
Hermione expected him to smash his face against hers like many of the men in her past had done. On the contrary, he palmed the space between her shoulder blades while his thumb tilted her chin up. The moment their lips touched, Bethany screamed. Hermione instinctually grabbed the bow from Malfoy and another arrow and took aim.
"What's wrong?!" she asked, her gaze flickering everywhere for any possible threat.
"Oliver's gone," she hissed and picked up the empty baby pack she'd toted him in. It had been underneath a heavily shaded tree and away from the warm sun where Bethany had left him to rest.
"Gone?" Nott repeated, rushing over to his trembling wife with his daughter not far behind.
"He disappeared," Bethany said, hot tears flowing down her cheeks. "He just...v-vanished. Right in front of me."
To be Continued...
A/N: Thank you so much, everyone who's shown support for this fic in anyway. I'm so grateful. I hope everyone enjoyed the chapter, and I'm sorry for the cliffhanger and for the confusion of this chapter. It'll make sense in due time, I promise.
Sorry for any errors. Feel free to point them out, so I can put them on my list of things to fix in the future. ;)
Please R&R. I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)
Please, I ask, that there be no flames. Got my very first one ever not too long ago. Sure, I've gotten rude, unnecessary comments before and constructive criticism tidbits that've come off harsh, but this was something else entirely. I wasn't offended because the flamer was having more of a tantrum than an actual crisis with my work. Immaturity doesn't even make a blip on my "feels" to those who are wondering. Ain't no body got time for that, especially me. :)